In lieu of my usual post, here is an article I was asked to write recently about how Lyme disease has affected my artwork. In an unusual departure for me, I share one of my poems, as well as some artwork.
After the downbeat tone of the first post of 2017, I’m a bit shame-faced to be bringing you good news, sunshine and smiles! But, since the country seems to have been thrust back into murky cloud and fog, maybe a bit of brightness will be welcome.
First of all, a finished painting! I found this watercolour commission a bit daunting at first. The subject was the site of a proposal – a romantic pondside setting. There are few things as restful or romantic as sitting by the side of a pond, but they don’t often communicate as well in paint. Ponds don’t have the scale and reflective properties of deep lakes, nor the power and majesty of the sea, nor the animation of a river. In addition, I was I trying to capture the significance of a spot where two good friends had decided to spend their life together…
To begin with, my plan was to try and capture the moment itself – on bended knee etc. But the reference photos and my preliminary sketches persuaded me this wouldn’t work – it was transparent to me that I was drawing a re-enactment. If I remember my own engagement, I’m sure an onlooker would have seen intense emotion and excitement written all over my body language – you can’t recreate that. My initial reference photos also seemed too explanatory, with the sun coming in from behind and creating a very pleasing, but uninteresting photo. I asked for more reference photos and received an apologetic reply with some pictures taken at sunrise, with the sun blinding the camera and obscuring much detail.
But so often, in life as well as art, it is what you can’t see clearly which is captivating, not that which is laid out. From that point, the whole project came alive for me. The real focus of the scene are the benches, where the proposal took place. Despite the fact that they are in the centre of the composition, with a gleaming path leading towards them, I love that fact that they are all but obscured – both in shade and with sunlight streaming in front of them. The title ‘Into the Sun’, extends this metaphor a bit. When you commit to marriage it is quite like walking into the sun – there is so much ahead that you cannot see and yet it’s a beautiful and exciting sensation.
More prosaically, I had forgotten how challenging watercolour can be – it requires such decisive action and yet whatever actions you make are all but impossible to undo. I used masking fluid to protect the benches, bulrushes and tufts of grass on the bank to the left, but removed it too early in the course of the painting. I managed to recover these crisp highlights by scraping out with a blade, but it had me worried for a while! The question of balancing light was also tricky. Since the overall impression is so clearly of light, I was nervous, at first, of painting in the darks. However, perversely, the more depth I added, the lighter the painting became, because the contrast of the glaring sun became more pronounced. The bank in shadow was so much fun, because it responded to layers and layers of subtle colours – infused in, blotted out – to capture the prismatic light over subtle shadow.
I can’t wait to deliver it to its new home.
In other, very unexpected news, I opened an email from the international art competition, Renoartio, at the weekend to find this ‘Bonnie Smile’ at the top of it:
You could probably hear my squeal in neighbouring houses. Only the day before, my husband and I had been looking at the high calibre of entries for the December open art competition, and were doubtfully hoping that I would improve upon my position of 18th place in the November competition. To come top was completely beyond my expectations. You can see what impressive and varied artworks are submitted to Renoartio here, https://www.renoartio.com/past-winners/, and I’m chuffed that ‘Bonnie Smile’ will soon be among them. Of course, it’s a huge confidence boost for me and my art, but I think it also shows that no one can resist a golden retriever smile!
Just a short post today about my first work of 2017, ‘Roots So Entwined’:
This project came to me when my aunt suggested a competition run by the clothing chain Toast, for ‘works of the heart’ to be displayed in their shop windows during the month of February. The Welsh lovespoon immediately came to mind, traditionally carved by a young man for his sweetheart as a sign of his serious intentions. I’m quite pleased to be reversing the gender stereotype, but how wonderful to express one’s love in the form of hours and hours of crafting, carving and polishing. Oh so much more romantic than the text message!
I’ve read that the oldest surviving lovespoon was made in the seventeenth century, but apparently the tradition is probably much older, originating with more humble carvings on a household soup spoon, which would then cease its practical function and be hung up on the wall. Now, of course, lovespoons are an entirely decorative gift, but as with so many aesthetic objects, their basic conformity to the humble spoon shape adds to the charm and ingenuity of design.
The image of what I wanted to draw was in my mind for many weeks before I was able to start work – during which time the deadline for the competition passed! But it’s a mark of how much the idea had captured me that I still had to create it, once I had the opportunity. Originally I envisaged a less three-dimensional drawing, with all kinds of backgrounds to set off the dark, almost silhouetted pattern. However, when I came to start work, I found that undulations and sheen of the wood mesmerising, almost like following lines of melody. I decided to give the curves achieved by the carver as much voice as possible in my drawing, and it felt like such a collaboration to be making art from art – the technical term for this being ‘ekphrasis’.
The medium of coloured pencil on paper was also an important factor. Of course, using the grain of paper seemed highly appropriate for the depiction of wood, but in the early stages the colour I was achieving with the pencils wasn’t intense enough, with the grain of the paper making the effect too loose and matt. So, I started layering up colour so as to saturate the grain, eventually ‘sealing’ it to achieve a high sheen, often with the help of a while pencil, especially in the areas of highlight. It felt almost like polishing the wood itself. The softness of coloured pencil was also a challenge in creating the sharp edges that I wanted, and in the end I found that a graphite pencil would fill the more fuzzy edges of the coloured pencils to create that clean silhouette.
So, if lovespoons are all about symbolism, what symbols have we here? This is a very simple lovespoon in this regard combining the somewhat self-explanatory symbol of a heart with celtic knotwork to symbolise lasting love. The latter was of far more interest to me, both aesthetically and in terms of sentiment, as it reminded me of a reading my husband and I had at our wedding reception, from ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ by Louis de Bernieres:
“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.”
This seemed even more touching as I became aware that, while the spoon seems to be constructed of interweaving strands of wood, in fact, of course, it is really a single piece. The metaphor of entwined roots for an object made from a tree about lasting love was too good to miss, so the work is called ‘Roots So Entwined’. Pleasingly the original has already sold, but I am keen to pursue the various backgrounds I had in mind, so I am producing unique giclee prints – each one hand-personalised with background and (if desired) initials. Below is a mock-up of a very simple version that I’m planning for my other half (he likes blue…) but please feel free to message me for more information if you are interested.
I often write my blog when I’m feeling ill, which is partly because when I’m well enough to paint or study, I paint or study! But it’s also because I find it encouraging to look back over what I have created since my last post, while I’m potentially feeling a bit low about not being productive. Since my last post the big picture for me has shifted considerably – from looking at a future in philosophy, I’ve rediscovered my true home in art and art history, and from looking towards a year of studying a conversion course, I find myself with another year to devote to art full time with the hope of starting an MA in Art History and Theory in 2017. This new, big picture, has meant lots more little pictures, both already completed and in the offing. Here’s a whistle stop tour!
My first thought was, unsurprisingly, Christmas! However, having begun this painting of crystallised, melting snow on festive berries, I realised that November is utterly the wrong time for an artist to be thinking about Christmas – it is too late to produce any cards and way too late for card publishers. So, I’ll probably return to this in late December or January, because in the meantime I’m hoping to submit an artwork for national exhibition for the first time.
The deadline is mid-December and a very open brief, so I am opting for a still life that I have been wanting to paint ever since we first moved into our house: a bud vase brimming with the first roses that we picked from the garden. However, over the last couple of weeks I have been struck by the rose buds still lingering on our rose bushes – in November for goodness sake! Poignantly, these rose buds have been petrified at this nascent stage by the increasing cold, and rather than blooming the tight buds have been mottled and damaged with cold and rain and wind. So, beside the vase of radiant blooms I have interposed this symbol of lost potential, though I hope to make it beautiful in its own right. With the deadline fast approaching, I can only hope to put paint to palette asap!
However, just as my first ‘microcosm’ had been an inspired distraction, last week I had another idea for the series – and with the subject at hand, I felt compelled to begin, and with the lighting all set up and occupying our main study, I felt compelled to finish… The subject was of course, a ball of string, though from now on it will be referred to as a ball of wool, due to strict instructions from its new owner, ‘the lady in black’! After drawing the paper ball, I was interested to find another example of a man-made globe, with all the inevitable connotations of the way we manipulate our world in both constructive and detrimental ways. The ball of thread immediately attracted me – the cliché of our lives being interwoven is increasingly important in the context of globalisation and our improving awareness (in some quarters…) of the interconnected ecosystems in the natural world. And of course, it has been hard since the election of the most unsuitable president in US history, not to think that the world as we know it might be unravelling. From the start I wanted the ball to be unravelling from the centre – somehow that seemed much more significant – and so it was real moment of artistic resonance when I happened to be reading Yeat’s poem The Second Coming, which yielded the title of the piece: ‘The Centre Cannot Hold’. Lots of big ideas for a very little picture!
So much for the concept. The execution was another matter! You might suppose that this microcosm was much more repetitive than the first – and you’d be right, but not quite as right as you would think. The more I stared at each strand, and saw it made up of yet finer twists of thread, the more I could see how different patterns emerged depending on the tension in that part of the yarn. There was also huge visual variety created by the angle of the light – I set up a strong light source to the left of the ball, in part to emphasis the spherical shape and the central chasm, but also as a reference ‘the great globe itself’. Indeed, with such a strong light source, and so much eye-watering detail to contend with, the hardest aspect of the whole project was not to overwork the drawing, with the detail easily dominating the overall shape of light and shade. In fact, I’ve changed my mind, the hardest thing was actually the visual organisation required – keeping track of exactly which bit of which thread you were drawing at any particular moment was both headache-inducing and strangely mesmerising!
With my ‘Crumpled World’ now framed (see left) and both microcosms already sold, I have many more ideas for the series, when I next have a microcosm-sized window of health and energy. But, with a diary now freed up for painting, I have these projects to look forward to as well: a watercolour of sunrise by a very significant pond, another canine project, a Lyme inspired series of still lifes and a new departure in wedding portraiture (if you recently had a wedding and would be interested in commissioning a guinea pig portrait for a huge discount (I’m talking 70% off my usual rate) then please get in touch!). I think that’s enough to be going on with… As I said: a big picture, made up of many little pictures!